Browsing the archives for the patience tag.
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How to Form a Habit: It’s Like Training a Friendly Idiot


Ah, brains: so mysterious, complicated, and powerful, and yet so inclined to tell us to sit on the couch and eat doughnuts instead of doing the dishes or working out. What’s with these things, anyway?

There’s a group of neurons deep in the heart of the brain called the basal ganglia, and they’re involved in some important functions like movement and habit formation. How does the habit formation part work? Kind of a like a big, stupid, friendly guy, who’s only too willing to help but needs to be shown what to do over and over. And over. And over again. You get the idea.

So if I’m out here wanting to develop a habit of remembering someone’s name the first time it’s said by always repeating it and using a mnemonic, and if I try that once or twice, the basal ganglia–our big friend–are going to be staring at me dully, wondering exactly what I’m getting at. But if I stay aware with post-it notes or constant vigilance or a string tied around my finger, and if I keep at it, eventually he’ll get a glimmer of understanding in his eye (though it obviously the basal ganglia don’t really have eyes–that would be creepy) and try to follow along, hesitantly and with some confusion. And if I keep introducing myself to enough new people (perhaps volunteering at the membership table of a stamp collecting convention, if that’s what it takes), and remember to always say the name over silently and come up with a mnemonic, then he begins to get in the groove and really starts to learn to do what I’m doing.

But then let’s say I’m tired after the stamp collecting convention. I go to a diner for a nice tomato sandwich, and when the waitress introduces herself as Evangeline, I’m just too tired to memorize her name. Suddenly the big guy lurches to a stop. He thought I was doing the thing with the repeating and the mnemonics, and now I’m doing the thing with the tomato sandwich, which is a little too many for him. So he waits for a clue.

Then five minutes later someone comes up and says “Hey, you were at the stamp convention! Did you get a load of those Cinderellas? Man!” He introduces himself as Larry.

This is it. I’ve already blown it with Evangeline, and Larry here is my Waterloo: the only question is whether I’m the guy who won at Waterloo or the guy who lost (yeah, I know their names, but if we get bogged down in details this article is going to run 1,500 words before we’re done, and nobody wants that).

So maybe I look at Larry and silently repeat the name “Larry” to myself, then think, “You know, he’s the kind of guy who looks like he would have a lair.” (Lair-Larry: that’s my mnemonic. And don’t give me that–I never said it had to be a clever mnemonic.) In this case the big dumb guy (the basal ganglia, not Larry: Larry’s like, 5’6″, not to mention he got a 1710 on his SAT’s) smiles angelically and lumbers forward again. He understands: this is a habit he and I are trying to form, and the thing with what’s-her-name the waitress, Angelina or Emmaline or whatever, was just a glitch. As long as there are very, very few glitches and lots of Larry experiences, the basal ganglia guy will put more and more of his massive strength behind reinforcing my name-remembering habit. And if I keep that habit up every day or very nearly every day, in just 18-254 days, give or take, it should be completely locked in! Now was that so hard?

OK, it was hard–for maybe two or three months (68 days on average, according to one study). But for the rest of my life, or until I start getting old and confused and calling everyone “Josephine,” I’ll be a champion name-rememberer, and people will look at me with awe and say “Boy, I wish I could remember names like that. I guess some people can just naturally do it and some people can’t.”

And even while I’m smacking my forehead in dismay at such people, the big dumb guy is happily shoving their names into long-term memory for me, unconfused and at peace.

Photo by Olivander

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Choosing a Goal That Will Change Your Life

Strategies and goals

There are at least three good times to target a new life goal:

1) When a person doesn’t have a goal at the moment and decides to improve life by getting one
2) When the goal or goals a person has already been pursuing turn out to be no longer necessary or not as high-priority as they once were (or once seemed), or
3) When work toward a current goal has gone so far that everything needed to keep on track for that goal has become habit, or in the case of a goal that’s a specific project, when that project is finished.

Should I always have a goal?
It’s hard to imagine that there’s anyone who has achieved every goal that would ever do them or others good–which suggests that if it’s practical, it’s probably worth having a goal nearly all the time.

But there’s that limitation, “if it’s practical”: is it always practical? Probably not absolutely all the time: if a person is dealing with a major crisis in the family or temporarily working 80 hours a week to deal with a short-term problem, there’s probably so much time, attention, and energy going into that short-term problem that long-term goals would wither from having too little effort going into them.

At the same time, for many people it feels like there’s always a special situation or problem going on: financial crisis after financial crisis, or having to work 80 hours week after week, or constant breakdowns in an important relationship. Even though these can be real crises, the fact that they’re continuing over a long period of time probably means they’re systemic problems: in other words, there’s some underlying difficulty that probably needs to be addressed if these crises are going to stop. Addressing that underlying difficulty would be a goal.

What if I need to pursue two or more goals at once?
Often there are battling needs in our lives that present multiple, top-level priorities, all of which need to be addressed at the same time. Right?

Actually … no. The idea that priorities “need” to be addressed is a broken idea, because “need” is absolute. “Needing” to be done doesn’t mean a thing necessarily can be done, or that it’s the highest priority, or that absolute devastation will occur if it’s not done. A more effective way of looking at things that seem to need to be done is to phrase them in terms of actions and consequences, for instance “If I don’t get the house cleaned before my friends come over, they will see my house dirty” or “If I’m late paying that bill, they’ll charge me an extra $25 and call to ask me where the money is if I don’t call them first.” This is instead of “I need to clean the house!” or “I can’t miss paying that bill!”

The reason I’m pointing to this problem of thinking of priorities as needs is that with rare exceptions, we really can’t take on more than one significant goal at a time. Successfully pursuing a goal means changing habits, devoting thought to the subject, and pulling time and energy away from other tasks. It’s true that if someone has a lot of extra time all of a sudden, for example due to recent retirement, it might be possible to pursue more than one goal at a time, like getting fit and starting a consulting service. Most of us, though, have lives that are already full of other things, and even if some of those things aren’t necessarily a good use of our time, in most cases we’re used to doing them, and it will take a lot of focus to change over to doing something different.

The upshot is that even if there are several really pressing problems to address at the same time, the most effective way to deal with them will be to decide which will pay off the most extravagantly if it’s done first. For instance, if you are constantly overcommitted and don’t have enough money to pay your bills, both of those are pressing problems, but in many cases it will make sense to deal with the overcommitment problem first, because if that’s addressed effectively, there will be more time to address the financial problem, which may in many cases require extra time if a solution is going to be worked out.

Making multiple goals into one goal
There actually is one approach to choosing a goal that can accomplish multiple major life priorities at the same time, which is to focus on process and organization instead of on the goal itself. For instance, I could adopt a goal of trying to do a very good job of making every choice, however small. Practicing this goal would mean things like regularly thinking back over good and bad choices made to try to repeat the good choices and improve on the bad choices; becoming more mindful of thoughts; and possibly adding healthy improvements to life, like meditation or more exercise.

A goal like this could simultaneously help in a lot of areas of life: eating better, making better use of time, improving relationships, spending money more wisely, and so on.

Other goals that serve multiple purposes include communicating better; getting very good at tracking, organizing, and prioritizing tasks; and improving mood. If there’s more than one thing you really want to accomplish in your life at the moment, ask yourself: is there any kind of practice I could learn that would benefit all of these areas?

New Year’s resolutions and other big goals
As we move toward 2010 and (for many people) New Year’s resolutions, I’ll be looking at ways to make and keep a resolution that will really make a difference. This article is the first in the series. The others will be posted over the coming week, right up to New Year’s Day, on my regular Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule.

Photo by simonsterg

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Does Willpower Really Get Used Up?

States of mind


Back in April I talked about this post on the New York Times blog, which seems to tell us that if we exert self-control in one area, it can cause us to have less self-control in other areas. Since then, I’ve come across a lot of information–studies, people’s stories of their experiences, my own experiences, books, and so on–that have helped me understand willpower a bit better. With this more informed perspective, I’d like to come back to the subject of self-control fatigue and ask: does willpower really get used up?

One goal at a time: focus, not fatigue
First, there’s one area where it’s become clear that not fatigue, but focus is the key. In the April post, I said “If we try to push in too many directions at once, we’ll rapidly become fatigued and usually lose our grip on all of the pieces. This is why, generally speaking, self-motivation works best when we work on one and only one kind of goal at a time.” Much information I’ve come across since writing that reinforces my conviction that as a rule, we have much better chances with new goals if we take on only one of them at a time–but because of focus instead of fatigue: if we try to take on two or more new goals at once, our attention is divided between them. This means less concentration on habits for each goal, less thinking about each goal, less recognizing of opportunities, less clarity, less mindfulness, and other kinds of limitations on how well we can really devote ourselves to our new goal. Since accomplishing a major goal usually means changing habits, and since habits are stubborn by definition, we usually need all the focus we can get when we take a new goal on.

Physiological energy and fatigue
The other aspect of self-control fatigue I talked about was physical energy: mentally exerting ourselves toward a goal takes a surprising amount of our available energy (and available blood sugar), which is what the Times blog post was focusing on regarding the study in question. Replenishing this energy with a little sugar fix (some lemonade) seemed to help. This particular point still stands, I would say: it’s harder to push for new goals when we’re tired, although it’s definitely still possible, especially if we’re well-prepared.

Is willpower a reservoir or a skill set?
But does this mean we use up willpower itself and need to regenerate it, or does it just mean that we use up our physical energy and have less of that to use in exerting our willpower? Just to share my current belief–this is nothing I’ve seen tested yet in any study, although that would certainly be of interest to me–I don’t think willpower really does get used up at all. What is willpower, after all? It’s often characterized as being like a reservoir or an electrical charge, something that we have a limited amount of and can use up. In reality, though, effectively exerting willpower isn’t really a matter of struggling against temptation and winning, at least not most of the time: instead, it’s a matter of learning and using the right skills to redirect ourselves. In other words, it requires learning and applying what we learn rather than brute force.

For instance, if I’m tempted to stay up late into the night to watch a movie I just received even though I know I need to be up early the next morning, it might be possible for me to dredge up a stern enough “No!” to force myself, resentfully, off to bed. But it’s definitely possible for me to ask myself questions like “Will I enjoy this movie just about as much if I watch it later?” and “Would it also be enjoyable right now to climb in bed and get some rest?” and “Will I be happier tomorrow morning if I watch this movie or if I hold off?” and “What if I just go get ready for bed, then see if I’m still as keen on watching the movie?”

All of these questions are strategies for looking at my situation in a different–and more complete–way, questions that can help me line up my actions with my long-term happiness instead of with whatever short-term pleasure offers itself–especially since, if I’m patient, I can often get some of the pleasure anyway without such a big cost.

But after that, I deserve to make bad choices!
A special situation that can make willpower seem like it’s getting “used up” is what schema therapy (of which more in future posts) calls the “entitlement schema,” the idea some of us often get that we deserve some pleasurable thing regardless of its effect on our long-term happiness. Having to exert willpower in one area can activate this schema, making it harder to exert willpower later. For instance, a person might think “I didn’t get to have that chocolate cake earlier, so now I deserve to eat this ice cream.” These kinds of statements sound like they make sense, but they really don’t when we examine them, because past good choices don’t make current bad choices any less bad. When I find myself running into problems like these, I try to remember to use idea repair to remind myself what’s really important.

An entitlement schema can make it seem like we’re using up willpower when all we may really be doing is having trouble reconciling ourselves to the good choices we’ve already made. This isn’t fatigue, just an attitude issue.

In the end, our mental resources are finite: we can only handle so much at once. But our mental resources also seem to often be much greater than we expect or give ourselves credit for, and even when it might seem for a moment like we’ve run out of willpower, if we search a little, we may find great untapped reserves ready to carry us forward–lemonade or no lemonade.

Photo by apesara

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How To Do Something You Don’t Know How To Do

Strategies and goals


You would think a garage sale wouldn’t be difficult to figure out. You prepare a little, you advertise, you put things on card tables, you wait. I’ve been wanting to help my son set up a garage sale of a lot of things he’s outgrown, where he could be in charge and receive the profits, but I’ve been stopped by the idea that I can’t. I live in a fairly rural area, on a dirt road that doesn’t get any traffic. I’ve been held up by this idea that we should have a garage sale, but I don’t know how to set it up so that people will actually come.

I was thinking about the garage sale this morning and once I really turned my attention to it, I realized the idea that I didn’t know how to make it work was ridiculous. We will either have a garage sale or we won’t. If we do, we’ll either have it here or have it somewhere else. If we have it somewhere else, we just have to figure what lucky friend is going to get us taking over their porch or garage soon, and ask permission. The only reason I’ve been thinking “I don’t know how” is because I haven’t been wanting to face it. Garage sales take preparation, which I don’t feel like I have time for, and they last a whole day, which I definitely don’t have time for, and what if no one shows up and all of the effort is wasted and we still have the things left over? It’s not that I don’t know how to do it, it’s that the idea has been making me anxious. Dealing with anxiety has a lot to do with facing things and answering questions. A few simple answers sorted my situation out. We should have the sale, because my son will enjoy earning the money and will learn about money from it, and because we need the room the old things are taking up, and because it’s a waste to have them here if we can get them to someone who will actually use them. We should have it here so that he can mind the sale and I can do the other things I need to do, checking in with him regularly. And we’ll attract traffic as well as we can by putting signs out on the main road right near us, which will probably give us more custom than we would get in a suburban neighborhood.

Your something may not be as easy to figure out, but there are several useful ways to do something you don’t know how to do. So, what are they?

1. If you really can’t do it, move on
If you really have no way of accomplishing the task in front of you, even after reading the rest of this article,  then the problem isn’t doing the task: if you honestly can’t do it, then it’s not your responsibility. Instead, the problem is facing the inevitable consequences of not doing it. This requires a difficult but powerful tool: surrendering to reality.

The same situation applies if the only way you can do the thing in question is to not do something more important. For example, if the only weekend we could do the garage sale was the only opportunity we’d get for some time to see family members visiting the area, then we’d need to give up on the garage sale. Fortunately, there are often more options than there seem to be at first, which is what the rest of the article is about.

2. You don’t have to do it if it doesn’t need to be done
Sometimes we resist doing things because they really don’t make sense for us to do. If it were for me instead of my son, I probably wouldn’t have the garage sale at all, because the amount of money it brought in wouldn’t justify the time. Instead I’d donate everything to a local recycle shop, which would sell the items to lower-income people for very affordable prices. If you feel concerned about how you’re going to tackle a problem, make sure first that it makes sense for you to do it at all before you start worrying about how.

3. Do it differently if there’s a better way
Sometimes difficult problems become much easier if they’re approached in an unexpected way. If you have something you’re worried about doing, consider whether there are other approaches you could take that would simplify things. If my son had a few major items and otherwise mostly things that would sell for next to nothing, he could sell the major items on eBay or Craigslist, still learning about money and reaping the rewards, and we could give the rest away to the recycle shop.

4. If it can wait, improve your position and then do it
Some tasks need improved skills before they can be done well, in which case a combination of practice and patience will put you in a much better position to get the thing done, provided it can wait. Keep in mind that research overwhelmingly supports the idea that practically anyone of at least average intelligence can excel at almost anything if they get in enough deliberate practice. If I were worried my son wouldn’t do a good job of running the sale, we could spend some time doing pretend sales and finding educational computer games about buying and selling to help him learn. We’d have to decide whether the sale was worth the effort and whether we could wait that long to get the unneeded things out of the house, but it’s possible the effort spent learning about money would be more than worthwhile.

Other tasks benefit from a change in situation. If I were going to move in the near future to a location that’s better for a garage sale, I might store the sale items away and have the sale there once we’d moved.

5. If it would work better with help, get help
Sometimes a little advice or active assistance from a friend, family member, mentor, or even a hired professional can go a long way. This might be as simple as getting a better idea of the task from someone who’s done it already, or as involved as finding and hiring a business manager for your new venture if you’re great at the core activity of the business but not so great at marketing, accounting, and the other general business tasks. For example, I probably have friends who have things they’d want to sell too, and a two- or three-family garage sale might attract more people.

6. If it works best to do it now, just do it the best you can
If it needs to be done, if there aren’t good alternatives, if others can’t really help, and if it’s best to do it now (due to ongoing problems, limited opportunity, a deadline, etc.), then you’re in the same place I was: face things and provide answers. If you don’t know the answers to the questions, get the best information you can and answer them as well as you can. If you’re having trouble facing things, it’s probably due to broken ideas, which means it’s fixable.

7. If you know what to do but don’t feel motivated, get in touch with your reasons
Of course, it might be that when you think about it, you realize you really do know how to tackle this goal, and it really is an important one, but you don’t feel inspired to get in motion. If that’s the case, it can help a lot to get in touch with your real reasons for accomplishing the goal. If they’re someone else’s reasons, or if you’re just trying to fulfill expectations or fit some role, then it may be that it’s not such a good goal for you after all. But if the reasons are your own, get in touch with them: write down what made you decide to do the thing in the first place, or visualize what it will be like to do it–or to have gotten it done.

Regardless of what approach you take, remember that “I have to but I can’t” is a logical impossibility. If there’s really no way to do it, you’re off the hook: no one can make you do something you truly can’t do. If there is a way to do it, all you have to do is figure out whether you’re going to decide to, and if so what the best way is. There’s not always a good way, but there is always at least one best way. I hope you find yours. As for me, I have to help my son go sort through some old toys.

Photo by m.gifford

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Willpower Is Exactly Like Owning a Dog

States of mind


Willpower needs a metaphor, and it needs a metaphor that has something to do with how people really acquire it, none of this stuff like “iron will” or “inexhaustable drive.” Those not only sound unattainable, but they also don’t even sound very fun. Real willpower is actually pleasant to have, doesn’t require bionic implants, and in many ways is exactly like owning a dog.

Practically anybody can be a successful dog owner if they really want to be: you don’t have to have any special qualifications. This is not to say it’s always easy: it’s just doable. After all, the things you have to do to successfully own a dog are:

1) Actually want to get a dog,
2) Understand how to take care of your dog, and
3) Do a few simple things on a daily basis–like feeding the dog and going for walks

Similarly, the only things you need to do to be motivated to do a particular thing, or to have willpower in a particular area, are

1) Actually want to pursue the goal,
2) Understand how to take care of your motivation, and
3) Do a few simple things on a daily basis–like visualizing where you’re going and and maintaining a feedback loop

Even though self-motivation requires getting several things right at once, and while it does take a continued time commitment, it really doesn’t take heroics. You keep at it every day, even though sometimes you succeed and sometimes you fail (like accidentally leaving the door open so the dog gets out). You keep things in perspective, deal with problems as they come up, and try to learn from your mistakes. Sure, you’ll need to take time out of your day to keep on track. And sure, you’ll probably need to learn some skills, like idea repair, mindfulness, and visualization … just like taking care of a dog means taking a little time out of your day and requires learning how much to feed it, how to keep it from chewing up your favorite shoes, and when to take it to the vet.

Speaking of which, dog ownership also gives us some guidance about what to do if motivation falters–if the dog gets sick. First of all, observe the symptoms: what’s wrong? When did it start? Are there any patterns to it?

Second of all, and dogs are pointing out something very important here, if your dog gets sick, you don’t abandon it (unless you are a heartless fiend): you pay more attention to it. You take it to the vet, give the deadly nightshade plant away to a single, petless neighbor, and offer your dog some extra attention. The same thing applies to your motivation, with the wonderful difference that instead of eventually getting old and slow, your motivation will just get stronger the longer you have it.


If we expand the idea for a minute to say that willpower is like having a pet, and that every different goal is like a different species of animal, we get a better picture of why we don’t try to simultaneously adjust our lives to, for example, a new boxer and a new snake. There’s enough to do when adopting just one species at a time: once the puppy is comfortably settled, there will be plenty of time to go shopping for heat lamps.

Dog in snow photo by digital_image_fan
Dog and snake photo by b.frahm

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How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?



Let’s say that you decide that every night before you go to bed, you’ll walk around your house and clean up anything that’s out of order: you put any last dishes in the dishwasher, pick up any dirty clothes, shelve any books that are lying around, etc., so that in the morning you can wake up to an ordered house, because you find that makes you happier to start the day. You do it for a few days. You’re very proud of yourself. Then you’ve been doing it for a week. Then you’ve been doing it for a month, all without missing a day. Is that enough for it to be a habit? As usual, there’s a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is “probably not.” The long answer follows.

Science to the rescue: some hard numbers
I’m working from a single study, “How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world” by Phillippa Lally, Cornelia H. M. van Jaarsveld, Henry W. W. Potts, and Jane Wardle in the European Journal of Social Psychology, so we’re definitely talking about actual science here, but it’s just one study, so take this information as tentative for now. With that said, let’s plunge into the long answer.

The long answer is that there seems to be no set length of time it will take a person to develop a habit. Different people will take different lengths of time, and different habits will also take different lengths of time: for instance, it seems that complicated behaviors take longer to become habits than simple ones.

In the study I link to above, the range of time it took people to form habits (specifically, to “reach 95% of their asymptote of automaticity,” and if you don’t have to look up at least one word to understand that, you did better than I did) ranged from 18 days to 254 days, the average being 66 days. As a general rule of thumb, then, two or three months is often going to be enough time for something that you repeat daily to become a habit. According to the study, missing the habit just once in that time didn’t seem to cause trouble, though more than once did.

That long?
On the one hand, that’s depressing: that’s a long time to have to work that hard at something! On the other hand, this is great: in just two to three months, you can turn many behaviors into habits that you just do automatically without worrying much about them. Cleaning, answering letters in a timely fashion, speaking diplomatically, exercising, eating well–any one of these might well be within your grasp before Christmas. We already knew that habits don’t come automatically; this just gives us a better idea of how much work they take.

A little help from Kaizan
If you’d like a little help with keeping a habit, Kaizan has a good tip for helping habits not break down: How to Make Sure That Nothing Gets Between You and Your Good Habits.

In the comments to that post, someone cites an often-repeated piece of information that it takes 28 days to form a habit. I’ve heard this more than once, but never heard that it was based on any reliable research. My guess is that it’s meant to be inspirational guesswork, and since people like round figures so much, it caught on. I’ve also heard 21 days cited; don’t believe that one either. In any case, the comment drove me to find research that gives something more like a real answer to the question, which led me to Lally, et al.’s study.

Don’t get too attached to a number
We’ll want to try not to get too wrapped up in a specific number of days, like this article, where they seize on that 66-day average and proclaim it as a universal truth. However much we human beings like a simple, unchanging answer, 66 days is just an average: your mileage is extremely likely to vary.

Why it doesn’t always matter
And it may help to act as though habit formation won’t be happening at all, to simply use feedback loops to keep up good practices and make good choices, and to take habit formation as a wonderful accident. As with any other positive development that results from being motivated, habit formation causes problems if it’s thought of as the end goal: it’s essential to find things to enjoy about the steps along the way in order to keep up anything important long enough for it to matter.

Photo by .scarlet.


Entrepreneurial Motivation and Creating a Business from Scratch: An Interview with Nancy Fulda


Nancy Fulda is a writer, editor, entrepreneur, Web developer, and mom who created AnthologyBuilder, a service that lets people edit their own anthologies of short fiction by professional writers. Creating this service from scratch took a lot of doing, and is a useful illustration of tackling a big task with no immediate payoffs along the way. I interviewed Nancy about that process and about some of the unexpected insights into her own motivation that came out of it. The rest of this post, except for headings, is in her own words.


The idea: a site where people could create their own anthologies
AnthologyBuilder is a custom anthology web site. Let’s say your nephew is fascinated by genetics and asks you for stories about geneticists. You’re not likely to find anything like that at the bookstore, but you can come to and choose stories for inclusion in a mail-order book.  You can pick your own title and cover art, too. The finished anthology costs $14.95 and looks just like any other book.

I started AnthologyBuilder because I was tired of buying magazines and books where only a few of the stories interested me.  “What I want,” I said to my friends, “Is a do-it-yourself anthology web site that let’s me pick whatever stories I want.”  The response was so overwhelmingly positive that I decided to build it.

I had a pretty good idea what the initial effort would be.  I was a bit surprised, later, to discover how much work goes into maintaining and improving a project like this on a daily basis.

The first major obstacle
The hardest part was finding a programmer.  I have some background in computing, so I had a pretty good grasp on what the site would need to do, and I was surprised and dismayed to discover that there weren’t any programmers willing to take on the job for rates we could afford.

“It’s not that hard,” I kept griping to my husband.  “I don’t know why no one wants to do this.  I could almost program it myself.”

And in the end, that’s what I did.  It required teaching myself PHP, figuring out how to encode PDF documents, learning to purchase and administer web hosting, and brushing up on internet commerce, but after three months of work, the first prototype of the web site was ready to go.

How she stayed motivated
I think what helped most was keeping the Big Picture in mind.  At the beginning, the web site wasn’t much to look at, but I tried to see it for what it could be instead of for what it was.

I made mistakes, of course; everyone does the first time they try something new.  But I tried not to let those mistakes discourage me.  I’d tell myself, “It’s ok, I can fix this.  It will all work out in the end.”  And so far, it has.

Starting a business from home, with kids
The home environment [was] an ideal work locale for me; I have the mornings to myself while the older kids are in day care.  Afternoons get a bit crazy sometimes, but I often manage to sneak in an hour or two of work during the afternoon.

I tend to focus on one task at a time.  There’s a weird sort of rhythm that I get into when programming.  Some days, I can code up several web pages in far less time than it takes me to write a page of text.

My most productive work times — and this is going to sound odd at first — happened on the days when I spent the most time with the kids.  Happy kids make for better work sessions, you see.  Crabby children interrupt me more often, and I can’t concentrate well because I’m too busy feeling guilty.  I learned pretty quickly to put the kids’ needs first even if there were five urgent emails in my in-box.  I get more work done that way.


Dealing with distractions
One of the biggest hindrances at first was the number of internet communities I belonged to.  I enjoy hanging out with my online friends, and I’d spend up to two hours catching up on blogs and discussion forums before actually settling into the work day.

After a while it became apparent that I was going to need to change something.  It took some effort, but I finally convinced myself that I didn’t have to stay up-to-date on every thread of every discussion forum.  In real life, I miss conversations all the time, so why should I feel the need to be a part of every single thing that happens online?

I also learned that I prefer to take care of the ‘little’ tasks of the day before settling into the ‘big’ one.  By ‘little’ tasks I mean things like answering emails, paying the bills, and so forth; individual items that take less than five or ten minutes to accomplish.

I used to be so enamoured of the current project that I’d push all that little stuff aside and dive right into the ‘real work’.  The problem with that was that all those unfinished tasks weighed on my mind.  It was like a mountain of work hanging over me, this big dreadful pile of Things That Needed Done, and it sapped my energy like a vampire.

The thing is, that huge dreadful mountain tasks seldom took more than an hour to complete.  I learned that if I cleared that stuff off my plate first, I’d face the rest of the day with only a single (albeit large) task looming over me.

How things changed once the business was launched
AnthologyBuilder seems to run in one of two modes: “Coasting” and “Renovation”.

In “Coasting” mode I spend 5-10 hours per week on housekeeping tasks: reading submissions, processing orders, responding to customer emails, and so forth.  AB goes into Coast mode whenever life gets frantic.  It’s a comfortable, familiar pattern that requires little emotional or intellectual investment.

“Renovation” mode comes along every two or three months and tends to last for about a month.  This is where I implement new features, run promotions, rework the site design, and otherwise try to push the site to its next level of potential.  Renovation mode requires 15-30 hours per week and sucks up a lot of brainspace.

When I’m in Renovation mode, I’m bursting with excitement and new ideas.  I’ll find myself jotting notes down during breakfast or planning a new feature while playing with the kids.  This saps energy and attention away from the family, which is why I try not to let Renovation mode continue for too many weeks in a row.

I envision my various projects (AB, family, work-for-hire, and so forth) as a connected system, kind of like push-buttons that pop up when one of the other buttons is pressed down.  Whenever one project is the center of attention, all the others are Coasting.  I try to swap it around and make sure every project gets its fair share of attention over time.

Sometimes I wondered whether AnthologyBuilder was unfairly sapping resources the family needed elsewhere.  Every time I discussed it with my husband, though, we both felt strongly that we should stick with it.  So we made adjustments and kept plugging along.

I would have abandoned the project without a second thought if I’d felt that AB was causing too much stress or that the family structure was cracking under the strain.  I firmly believe that knowing when to let go of a good idea is just as important as knowing when to snatch one up and run with it.

Advice for entrepreneurs
I’m often asked what advice I’d give to young entrepreneurs.  Two thoughts spring immediately to mind:

(1) Just because an idea doesn’t pan out doesn’t mean it was a mistake to try it. You gain skills along the way that will help make subsequent projects successful.

Perhaps more importantly, trying and failing brings a peace of mind that failing to try never can.  Okay, so it didn’t work out, but at least you know that.  You won’t spend the rest of your life wondering what might have happened if you’d tried.

(2) Don’t risk anything you’re not willing to lose.  This includes, but is not limited to, money.

Family picture courtesy of Nancy Fulda.


Why Tackling Big Tasks Doesn’t Have to Be a Big Deal

Strategies and goals

Some of the tasks that are hardest to get ourselves to do are the big, overwhelming ones like cleaning out a junk room or garage, doing a full-scale edit on a novel, or organizing papers or files. Often we think about these kinds of tasks as requiring one big push, a big chunk of time that we imagine will be available sooner or later.

That kind of approach to a task can work out badly in at least two ways. First, a task that we think of like that may never get done. Second, even if we do accomplish the task, before long we may find things quickly getting back to the same situation we were in originally. When these kinds of problems rear their ugly heads, it’s time to think about breaking the big tasks down, not only into smaller pieces, but into habits.

What I mean about breaking a task down into a habit is looking at what kind of regular behavior can make the problem go away permanently. For example, regardless of whether older papers are filed or not, if new papers keep piling up, there will always be something out of order, and more often than not it will be a big stack (or three, or twelve …). This kind of situation calls for adopting a new habit, possibly even a new rule, about how new paper is handled, regardless of the old stuff. The new habit can be based on an event (for example, every time a new paper comes into the office that isn’t actively in use, it gets recycled or filed) or on a schedule (for instance, all papers get filed every Thursday morning).

Notice that this new habit doesn’t require old problems to be taken care of before it comes into play. It’s easier to be motivated when no old problems are looming, but not letting a problem get worse is still a meaningful and relieving change from ever-renewing chaos.

New habits can even help take care of old problems. For instance, with filing the new habit might be to file each new thing as it comes in along with at least one old paper. In this way, the filing gets done slowly but also fairly painlessly, and it reinforces the value of the new habit. What’s more, doing a little bit of a task that used to seem huge and unmanageable can be very freeing and empowering, often supplying the necessary motivation to get a lot more of it done.

Alternatively, old problems can be handled in small chunks separately from new habits. For instance, you might tackle a junk room or a filing job just 15 minutes at a time whenever you have a free moment.

Regardless, clearing the old problem away can be enormously freeing in terms of the pressure it relieves. Strangely enough, under the right circumstances taking care of something you’ve been avoiding and perhaps even been a little fearful of can be powerfully enjoyable, if you can push past the initial jitters and focus on the progress you’re making and not the problems you may have had in the past.

Photo by f1rwb DClik.


Specific Steps We Can Take Toward Accepting and Moving On

Handling negative emotions


In a recent post, I talked about the importance of being able to resign ourselves to certain truths in our lives if we want to move forward. To put this another way, sometimes our ideas about how things “should be” holds us back, and accepting the world as it really is can free us of those ideas. Here are some specific areas where acceptance can help lighten the load. Probably none of these will be new to you, but learning to accept them better is the kind of thing that can benefit any of us.

There will always be a certain amount of suffering in the world, and some of it will come to each of us–but we can help alleviate the suffering of others and can work toward being able to take it in stride when suffering comes directly to us.

The world outside us won’t always be the way we want it to be: people will drive dangerously, decisions will be made that we don’t think are best, and sometimes people will be treated unfairly or unkindly. However, we ourselves can strive to do things as much as possible the way we would want others to do them.

There are limitations to how much we can change or fix in our lives at one time, and there’s no single, magic solution to all problems.

Striving to do something difficult will usually mean some failures along the way. Failing is a normal part of the process of reaching a goal. Major life changes rarely can be accomplished overnight and without a few setbacks.

In order to get to what’s really important in our lives, sometimes we have to let go of things that are less important, for instance plans we might have had or desires we meant to fulfill. Letting go of unimportant things pays off handsomely in giving us resources and attention to focus on the important ones.

A technique called “cognitive restructuring” or “idea repair” can aid constructive thinking in these areas. You can find more information about this process in my posts on broken ideas.

Photo of Brisbane traffic by neoporcupine


How We Overestimate Our Own Self-Control

States of mind

PR Newswire posted an article yesterday called “Research Shows Temptation More Powerful Than Individuals Realize; Personal Restraints Often Overpowered by Impulse” about recent psychological research by Loran Nordgren. That research makes a very useful point: on average, we tend to overestimate how much self-control we have, so we tend to put ourselves in tempting situations more often than is ideal for us. This is an example of an effect Daniel Gilbert describes in his book Stumbling on Happiness, that when we are in one mood, it’s very difficult for us to imagine how we would make decisions in a different mood–and that we generally don’t recognize this is so. When we’re sad, it feels as though everything will suck forever, for instance. In the same way, Nordgren’s experiments support the idea that when we’re calm, we don’t do a good job of predicting how we’ll act if things get crazy (for instance, if someone introduces a big slice of chocolate cake into the picture).

Unfortunately, this piece makes the same mistake that is often made when people talk about running out of willpower: they assume that we should avoid all tempting situations no matter what. In reality, if we always avoid temptation, we miss our opportunities to exercise and strengthen our willpower. We just don’t want to go in the other direction either, and overwhelm ourselves past the point where we still have willpower left.

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